Tomboy – Review

Tomboy 

Directed by Céline Sciamma. Cast: Zoé HéranMalonn LévanaJeanne Disson.

This small independent film was made for peanuts (Filmed on a Canon 5D and just a handful of people in the crew) and it is unlikely to make any big impact on the box-office. However I’m sure it’ll leave a mark on those few who will actually manage to see it. In fact judging by the recently released long list from the 2012 BAFTA Awards Nominee, where TomBoy shows among some other nominees, it looks like I am not the only person who has been touched by it.

Zoé Héran is absolutely wonderful as Laure, the 10 years old girl who’s just moved into a new neighbourhood where nobody knows her and pretends to be a boy (Michaël) with her new friends. Her performance is one of the best of the year, and possibly among the best ever performances by a child: she not only perfectly captures that innocence that children of that age have, but at the same time she seems to have a deep understanding of the struggle and the pain of her character. Throughout the film she really acts as if she was a real boy in a way that’s so believable that at some point I really started to wonder whether “she” was actually a real “he”. The film knows that and it does play with you by stretching the lie as far as it possibly can, until it decides to show you the real truth in a beautifully handled scene where you do actually see briefly the girl naked. It’s a fleeting moment and the film obviously doesn’t linger on it, but it’s enough to put our minds at rest so that we can carry on enjoying the rest of the story.

The director Céline Sciamma’s ability to film children making it look real is incredible. It feels effortless as if the camera was one of the children themselves and we as the audience are left observing them playing in the forest as if we were spying on them, or as if it was all a documentary. Rarely I have seen scenes with such young children that feel so honest and real: the approach is subtle and light, the atmosphere is almost muted, dialogue to advance the story is used to a minimum and the silences are charged with meaning and intensity.

This is a subject that rarely makes the news, let alone the movie theatres. And it’s so refreshing not just to see it depicted in this film, but to have it told with such an understanding, honesty and open-mindedness.

All this together with the stellar acting from little Zoé make the internal drama of Laure/Michaël even more poignant and powerful.

Be warned, this is a slow film (a very short one too at only 82 minutes), that has “French independent” written all over it, from its pace, to its rough look and its lack of music score, but if you, like me, love films about children growing up, this sensitive, tender and never heavy-handed story might just melt your heart too.

I saw it months ago and I still remember it vividly, so it must have worked on me.

8/10

The Silence Of The Lambs – 20th Anniversary

The Silence Of The Lamb (1991)

(20th Anniversary Review)

Dir: Jonathan Demme With: Jodie FosterAnthony HopkinsScott Glenn

Yes, it has been exactly 20 years since Antony Hopkins appeared for the first time as Dr Hannibal Lecter (the film premiered on the January the 30th in New York and on the 1st of February in LA. Interestingly the film was released to the general public on Valentine’s day: not your typical date movie, is it?).

Back in 1991 it defied expectations by winning the top 5 Oscars (a year after its release!!), best film, director, screenplay, leading actor and actress: it is only the third film in movie history  (after it happened one night and One flew over the cuckoos’nest.)… and the first horror/thriller to win for best film. As it happened a year after Goodfellas lost to Dances with Wolves, it was probably a sign that Hollywood was getting ready to accept the dark side of movies.

20 years later, “The Silence of the Lambs” is still a preposterous film, camp as hell,  absurdly over the top in its premise and its execution and yet it holds a place in American Movie History as a modern classic.

With Hannibal (incidentally a character that appears for only 16 minutes in the film) Hopkins became a star (yes, he was good before this, but few really knew him) and created an icon, which lived on throughout (and despite) its three sequels: Hannibal, Red Dragon (in fact this is both a prequel and a remake of Micheal Mann’s Manhunter) and the very forgettable Hannibal Rising (another prequel, Hopkins-free).

All of a sudden, we all started to love the bad guy, or at least we loved hating him: we loved the fact that he ate the despicable Dr Chilton at the end (“I have an old friend for dinner”, is probably one of the classic final lines of any film, up there with “Nobody’s perfect” in Some Like It Hot), we loved those over the top lines, those chilling looks, his refined taste, his Southern English accent… And we just want him to get away, despite the fact that we know he’s bad.

This is certainly nothing new, Hitchcock had done it  30 years earlier in Psycho, but arguably this is the film that started off the whole trend of “serial killers” with whom we identify, the whole puzzle solving murder mysteries and the mixture of dark horror and funny one liners. Surely without Silence of the lambs and its Hannibal the Cannibal character, there would have been no Se7en by David Fincher, possibly no Dexter on TV and probably not even Jigsaw from the Saw franchise…  And God knows how many others.

However what keeps this film anchored to the ground, despite the over-the-top (but obviously very effective) performance by Anthony Hopkins, is a combination of a very controlled and calculated direction by Jonathan Demmi and the presence of Jodie Forster, who somehow counterbalances her camp on-screen partner.

Jonathan Demmi, uses every little (subtle and non-subltle) trick in the book to suck in his viewers and bring them as close possible to the screen. He films the most intimate dialogue sequences between Hannibal and Clarice in extreme close ups, and has them delivering their lines straight to camera, as if they were confessing their inner secrets directly to us. As he does so, he drops the level of any other sound away from the central conversation, he kills the music and as as he slowly zooms in closer and closer into their faces, he very subtly pushes the bars of the prison cells that separate them away from each other until they actually disappear from the final frame, thus bringing the two characters even closer to each other.

It’s very effective and it works wonderfully!

He even uses the powerful tricks of editing in order to deceive us to believe one thing instead of another. That famous sequence towards the end of the film, where we are lead to believe that the police is about to break into Buffalo Bill’s house and save the day, only to reveal that in fact they’re all actually heading to the wrong place. Nowadays these types of devices have been copied over and over again in countless movies and TV CSI-like shows (and even the great 24) but never worked as well as they did here: it is an incredibly manipulative but just as accomplished moment.

Today so many films about “serial killers”, puzzle solving, cat & mouse chases and dark psychological horrors, they all seem to owe a debt to “The Silence of the Lambs”. Watching it today, we find so many clichés of the genre, but in fact, most of them, if not all of them, were absolutely new at the time.

I am not quite sure it deserved to all all those Oscars, but it certainly deserves its cult status today, 20 years later, for  paving the way to a new genre of thrillers, braner and more stylish horrors.

8.5/10

Check out the review of another modern Classic:

Back to the Future (1985)

The Next Three Days – Review

The Next Three Days (2010) 

Director: Paul Haggis With: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks and Liam NeesonMichael Buie

This movie has been out in the US for a while, but for some reason somebody decided to release it against Harry Potter (I call it suicide) and it seems to have gone by without much attention from anyone. It’ll come out in the UK in January 2011 in the hope to get noticed for the forthcoming Award season mainly for Russell Crowe’s performance, but also because it’s been directed by an Oscar favorite, Paul Haggis (from Crash).

Hopefully if it doesn’t get noticed in the theaters, it’ll have a second life on DVD and Blu-ray, because it truly deserves to be seen.

Now, I know I am not going to say anything new here, but I’d like to stress that, like many others, this film is better enjoyed if you don’t know anything about it.

Keeping that in mind, I will try to spoil as little as I possibly can as I encourage you to go and watch it, especially if you like good thrillers. The trailer for “The Next Three Days” gives away 9/10 of the movie so stay away from it (thankfully I hadn’t seen it). It’s a real shame they decide to show that much in the trailer because some of the beauty of the film is actually not knowing where the whole thing heading to.

The basic plot is nothing new, in fact the film itself is a remake of the French”Pour Elle”: a normal family shaken by the sudden arrest of Russel Crowe’s wife, accused of murder. It all happens within the first few minutes so don’t worry about having that spoiled.

However, Haggis has managed to improve over the French film, not only by filling all the plot holes of the previous version but also by tinkering with the poor original ending, making it a lot better.

Every twist and turn in the movie comes as a surprise, whether it’s about the plot itself or the way the characters react to a certain situation. The film challenges any preconceptions the audience might have by  being constantly surprising and by making us change our minds on the crucial question running thorough “Is the wife guilty or is she innocent?”.

It’s all very skillfully handled, in its construction and its pace.

The film starts off deliberately slowly to allow us to get closer to the characters and then gets faster and faster towards the final act which ends up being a real edge-of-your-seat-thrill. It almost feels like one of those solid thrillers from the 80s or early 90s, more concerned about creating an atmosphere that having big chase sequences and explosions or shootouts. However when they finally do come, the tension has been so enhanced because of your emotional investment up until that point, that it all works perfectly.

It’s interesting to see Russell Crowe playing against type. We are so used to see him as the “Gladiator type”, looking for revenge, or simply for a fight, as his off-screen infamous personality merges into his characters. Yet in this film Russell Crowe is the sweetest man ever: a loyal husband, a great father… and basically just a good man. I have to confess I don’t really like the guy, and yet once again in this film I have to bow to actor’s ability to morph himself into the character. His intensity and charisma is undeniable and at the end the film works 10 times more than it should because of his bravura. His depiction of a good husband is all very carefully (and intentionally) done to make you sympathize and care for the character even if at some point in the movie he behaves pretty badly…

The supporting cast all all top class too, including an unexpected appearance by Liam Neeson.

It all probably takes itself a bit too seriously, almost trying to be more like “Conviction” than “Prison break”. There’s hardly any laugh in the whole film and at the end of the day this is a thriller and it’s not meant to change anyone’s life, but while you’re with it, you’ll certainly enjoy it.

8/10 (if you haven’t seen the trailer… a lot less if you have).

Alice in Wonderland – Review

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010) 

Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Johnny DeppMia WasikowskaHelena Bonham Carter

On paper this movie is something which had all the potential to be the movie of the year: Tim Burton’s visionary genius re-imagining one of the most fantastic and imaginative stories ever.  Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Mia Wasikowska (from the wonderful “In Treatment”) as Alice herself. Special Effects extravaganza in 3D. And a never-ending list of great actors and  actresses lending their voices to all those loved characters from our childhood. I would have said “count me in!” anytime!!! And yet, this ended up to be possibly the biggest turkey of the year!

It’s not really an awful film, but knowing what this could have been like, it just leaves you really disappointed.

How could it have happened?

In a way it reminded me of Steven’s Spielberg’s Hook, one the (few) big missteps of his career. In that movie too Spielberg had made the terrible mistake of messing with a classic story: for example we had a grown up Peter Pan going back to Neverland. Here Alice has grown up too and forgot everything about Wonderland which is now a run down place with a Gothic feel, typical of any Tim Burton’s movie. Well, that would probably be all right, except that Burton, by updating the world really managed to take the wonder out of “Wonderland”.

Tim Burton’s film is essentially a sequel/re-imagining of the Lewis Carroll without all the joyful surprises, the sense of discovery and  fun of that book and more crucially, without a single good original idea! None of the liberties the makers took seems to work culminating with fight scene with a dragon at the end  of the end which seems to belong to a different film altogether. And (big spoiler here… watch out) what’s point of all that going to China at the end? What a mess!

There was another Disney’s movie back in the 80s called Return to Oz, which made the same mistake and used the same device of having Dorothy going back to Oz only to find it all changed and half-destroyed and now look almost like a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape where everything seem to be covered in ash. However in that film the story and the characters were so compelling that somehow they got a way with it, in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland all the characters are so annoying and only just half-sketched that it’s hard to care about any of them. In fact it seems like their accents, make up  and CGI enhancements have replaced their personalities.

Michael Sheen‘s White Rabbit appears a couple of times and is probably the most confusing of them all, since it relies on your knowledge of the character from the previous incarnation of the story to make any sense of it. Where is he going? Why is there at all? What’s his point? is he there to help Alice or the Queen? Stephen Fry‘s Cheshire Cat and  Alan Rickman‘s Blue Caterpillar are just as superfluous to the story. Once again, it all feels rather over-blown, over-crowded with characters.

And finally Johnny Depp who’s impersonation of the Mad Hatter is the most annoying of them all and possibly one of the actor’s worse performance of his career . Now, I really used to like Johnny Depp, but it seems that in the last few years he’s only been playing the same over-the-top character over and over again. His Mad Hatter seems an extension and a mixture of his previous “mad characters”: there’s a little bit  from Tim Burton’s previous creations, from Willy Wonka in Chocolate Factory,  to Sweeney Todd and even his previous Edward Scissorhands but there’s also lots of reminders to Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, and hints from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Is Johnny Depp playing the same character over and over again? What happened to the sweet, restrained and understated performances of his early work like the beautiful What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Donnie Brasco? And most awful of them all Anne Hathaway‘s take of White Queen, who’s mannerism is just as annoying as her eyebrow. It might have been all intentional (in which case, even worse) but it was certainly a very bad choice to have her acting like that.

Helena Bonham Carter‘s impersonation of the Red Queen is one of the few redeeming factor in the whole film and the scenes with her are probably the highlights in an otherwise flat and misjudged series of sequences. Though even her bizarre creation becomes a bit tedious after a while.

Even the special effects (which by themselves are top class) are so diluted in the poor story that somehow failed to strike a chord and surprise us. Not to mention the use of the 3D which is probably one of the poorest use of it I’ve seen this year (together with “Clash of the Titans”). I guess it has to do with the fact that the movie was actually filmed on 2D and then retrofitted (I am not quite sure whether this is the right term for it) afterwards. This is a technique that not only doesn’t work but also brings a bad reputation to 3D itself (I keep on hearing a lot of people complaining about how bad 3D is, but they’ve only seen Clash of the Titans of Alice in Wonderland,  and they believe that’s what 3D really is).

Just a quick word about the music score: yes, it could have been good, if only they had work out where to use it, as opposed to ending up having music throughout the whole film, thus diminishing the effect that music should have. Overblown is once again the word that comes to mind.

I wonder what this film could have been like if maybe Tim Burton had made it, without Disney behind his shoulders. But as it is, on the whole, this mish-mash of Disney and Burton doesn’t really hold together and it proves once again that Tim Burton is the “director-that-could-be-great-but-rarely-really-is”.

5.5/10

OTHER RELATED REVIEWS (or, you’d better watch something else, instead of this)

Toy Story 3

Tron: Legacy

Back to the Future

 

Back to the Future – 25th Anniversary

It’s hard to write a review about a film that’s so much-loved and regarded by pretty much everyone as a modern classic, without sounding too obvious or even without upsetting somebody out there. So for the time being I might just start to talk about the first 5 minutes of this undisputed classic. More than a review, this is really just an excuse to talk about one of my favourite films. And what better excuse to do that if not its new release on Blu-Ray for its 25th anniversary?

So, inspire by the recent BBC “Film 2010” item, I am going to re-visit “Back to the Future” to try to understand what makes those films such undisputed classics.

BACK TO THE FUTURE (1985) 

Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Starring Michael J. FoxChristopher LloydLea ThompsonCrispin GloverThomas F. Wilson

Right from the very beginning of this film, in fact from the very first shot, you can tell that we are in the hands of somebody who knows exactly what film-making is: somebody who knows that film-making is about telling a story with pictures. And that’s exactly what “Back to the Future” does. The very first shot of the film is a clear example of certain type of story-telling that we are going to find throughout the whole film: a single tracking shot, moving through all the various clocks and inventions in the room, will not only tell us everything we need to know about Doc Emmet Brown but also will set up lots of clues and issues which will later become pivotal moments in the story. But I’ll get into that a bit later.

We can tell straight away that this is going to be a film about “time” as the camera travels through all the various clocks in the room. We can tell that the person who works or lives here is must be a rather eccentric person, maybe an inventor or some sort of scientists. The pictures on the walls, the framed newspaper articles, the mad inventions. No need for dialogue: pictures tell a thousand words.

I love the subtlety of the details hinting at the various plot points that we’ll later find out in the film. This is so typical of Back to the future. it is something that permeates the whole film, right from the start. Watching this particular shot (well, in fact, the whole film) is even more enjoyable the second time around (…or third, or fourth… Or like me, the erm… not quite sure actually: I’ve lost the count a long time ago).

And so we hear the TV announcer talking about the missing plutonium, the clock with the little man hanging from one of the hands, the box of the plutonium itself at the end of this first very long track).

Even technically, the whole camera set-up is pretty impressive. Zemeckis is the master of these kind of one-take wonders and he’ll get them to perfection in later films such as “Contact” (with shots that go through windows or, like a particularly amazing one, through a mirror), but also “The Polar Express” and “Beowolf” where he was able to use the animation and create camera movements which would have been impossible on a real film.

As the film geek that I am, I’m always a bit annoyed by the cutaway of the dog’s food landing on Einstein’s bowl. Even though it works absolutely fine, it breaks the flow of that otherwise-perfect single take and it’s a shame. I’m sure they could have found another way to show us the bowl somewhere around the time when Marty comes in, keeping the one-take tracking shot unbroken.

Anyway, moving on, Michael J Fox, enters the scene. After the long first tracking shot, the pace gets a little bit faster in a succession of quick tight shots, as Marty plugs himself into the amplifier. Marty flies into the air, crashes into some shelves and finally reveals himself to the audience, as he takes off his ridiculously 80s glasses. What an entrance! I still remember watching this in a packed theatre and hearing the laughter from the audience at this point. The films really grabs you right from the start and it’s mainly because of Michael J Fox’s charm and his ability to be likeable (I can see why they decided to dump Eric Stoltz). And because of the deliberately slow first 20 minutes of the film, it is essential to have somebody like him as our main character. And we like him straight away. “Damn! I’m late for school!”. How can you not like him?

What this first shot manages to do is pretty much what the whole film does all the way through. It plants the seeds for things that will get resolved or explained later on, setting you up for a big payoff or simply just joke.

This is the strength  of “Back to the Future”: its perfectly constructed script. Nothing is there by mistake: if an uncle being in prison get quickly mentioned, it’s because later on we’ll see it as a baby inside a little cage. If  we see a poster of a black mayor on the side of a van, it’s because we will get to meet him as a young person later on. I could go on mentioning all the little details that pay off throughout the film and I’ll still be here tomorrow. There are just so many of them, just like those one liners which have become so much part of our popular culture:

“Are you telling me that you built a time machine… out of a DeLorean?” “Dad… Dad… Daddy-o” “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.””I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it” “Great Scott!” “EIGHTY-EIGHT MILES PER HOUR” “1.21 GIGAWATTS!!”, “The Flux Capacitor”, “Hey McFly”, “Hello? Hello? Anybody home?…” “Lou, get me a milk, chocolate!”, “My density has popped me to you.”, “Calvin Klein”

I mean… I could probably go on forever! In a way, the whole damn script is quotable today (In the BBC Film 2010 video above, they do a nice little montage of some of the famous one liners”).

I hear that the script is used all over America in lectures on how to write the perfect script. Whether it’s true or not, it makes perfect sense.

I’ll finish off the little “review” of the first 5 minutes of the film by mentioning the song that kicks in once Marty jumps on his skate :”The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis and the News. Watching it then, at the time, back in 1985 when the Back to the Future was released, this song gave you just the right amount of energy that the film needed at this point, to lead you to the next few scenes. Watching it today, it’s like a blast from the 80s, in the best sense of the terms. Nowadays it’s impossible not to associate this song with the film, but also, it’s impossible not to think about the film thinking about or even humming this song. And just like the chicken and egg never-ending question, it’s impossible to think of one without the other.

There’s obviously a lot more to talk about in this film (and its sequels too): not just the fabulous Christopher Lloyd and the rest of the great cast from Crispin Glover, to Lea Thompson, to Thomas F Wilson, but also the amazing action scenes, the witty humor, the sharp editing, the make up and special effects, the twists, the skate boards… and of course “johnny B Good”.

But for now, let’s just leave it to that. If there’s enough interest I might carry on examining the rest of the 3 films.

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